This is part of a series called Wine Words, a glossary in the works that breaks down the barrier between those in the wine know and those who have no idea what the hell everyone's talking about. A new word posts once a week, and can cover anything and everything from a grape name or region, to a winemaking or tasting term. If you have a recommendation or request, please leave it in the comments.
Corked (adj.) Tasting Term
When we say a wine is corked, or corky, we're referring to tainted wine with an off-putting smell, like wet cardboard, musty basement or wet dog. There are some varying opinions as to exactly where the taint can come from, whether it's a byproduct of chemicals used in cleaning wineries is debatable. But all true corks contain microscopic fungi that have the potential to spoil a wine. Corks, by the way, are made from the bark of cork trees grown in Portugal. In any case, at one time there was an estimated 10% cork taint industry wide, though more recent studies suggests a mere 3 to 5% loss. Still, a loss is a loss. It's one of the reasons screw caps have become so popular.
There are varying degrees of corkiness, the very worst situation extremely unmistakable. I once opened a corked sample for a retail account off Columbus Circle that was so obvious I could smell it before the cork was all the way out. So could a rep from another company standing 6 feet away who loudly pronounced, That's corked! (Like I was going to pretend it wasn't). Most corked wines are far more difficult to detect, and often my drinking fellows can not smell it. Best case scenario when this happens, is to open a second bottle of the same wine and compare the two side by side. I love to see people's faces light up when they recognize cork for the first time. Eureka!
To make things just a little bit trickier, you can't always smell corkiness in a corked wine. Sometimes the taint is so subtle, it simply masks the aromas and fruit flavors. If you've never had the wine before, you might not consider that it's tainted, and not likely to buy the wine again. Confession: sometimes when a wine is corked (mostly I can't smell the taint), just the flavors have shut down, I drink it anyway. Because sometimes beggars can't be choosers.
When you're in a restaurant and the waiter or sommelier pours a taste in the glass before pouring the bottle around, it's for you to check to see that it's "sound." This isn't about whether or not you like the wine. If you think you smell cork, speak up. Don't be an asshole about it, just say to the wine steward, I think this wine is a little corky. What do you think? A good restaurant will bring over a new bottle. If you open a corked bottle at home, plug it back up and return it to the store, which should replace the bottle.
Got cork questions? Leave a comment or shoot me an email.